Forget About Best Practices: Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

Achieving the greatest levels of success in any industry will be done not through best practices, but a willingness to take part in experimentation in a complex and unpredictable environment.


Some of the brightest minds in history have accomplished great things, not by following rules and best practices that have gone before, but by experimentation. In fact, the founding fathers of the United States created this country based on what they referred to as a 'Great Experiment.'

It may seem logical to undertake a major initiative by doing what other people have successfully done before, and consultants and analysts make an excellent living compiling 'best practice' documents for every industry to follow. But if you’re banking your success on what’s already been done by others, you’re already at a disadvantage.

The problem with 'best practices'

In creating new initiatives and planning for growth, it’s always a good idea to start by looking at what worked for other people. Within that context, though, it’s important to realize that success is nowhere near as formulaic as we would have it be. If it were, achieving desired results would be as simple as following a recipe, and there would be nowhere near as many business failures as there are.

Achieving goals by implementing best practices that have worked for others is a limited strategy that precludes innovation and ignores the fact that in the real world, managers often do not have enough data available to predict what results any given practice will yield within their own unique ecosystem. As a result, they rely on anecdotal information about what has worked for other organizations. However, companies are not simply income-generating machines that deliver predictable results based on standardized input. What worked wonderfully for one organization may not work for another.

Management by best practice also fails in that it often measures success by comparing accomplishments against a checklist of preordained tasks, rather than as the improvement of important performance metrics.

Planned Experimentation

Human nature is the root cause of failure for most organizational programs. It is natural to want to stay within your comfort zone. Relying on what has worked for others feels less risky than striking out your own. Rarely will solutions transplanted from other companies deliver the goods, however, and there is wisdom in realizing that you have no idea what is sure to produce the results you desire. Success will only come through planned experimentation – trying out multiple ideas and carefully monitoring results to discover what truly works; expand the successes, tweak or reject what doesn’t move the needle, and continually test additional ideas as necessary.

Three techniques to make it work

Planned experimentation works best when done within a framework of a narrow scope, ambitious results goals, and a short timeframe.

Start by carving off a focused area within a major strategic effort. For instance, aim for driving results in one product line, one geography, or one customer segment. Next, assemble a temporary team with cross-functional representation from all the key areas needed to make the improvements, and have them commit to a major step up in performance – a substantial business outcome, such as revenue growth, quality improvement, or productivity gains. Last, give them 100 days or less to achieve their goal, and empower them to do whatever is needed to succeed.

That empowerment must come with accountability, and the team should be accountable for achieving their results goal. When a team’s accountability is limited to reporting that they accomplished everything on a best practices checklist, they are not innovators but merely functionaries.

Working with a narrow scope allows the team to try out multiple innovations quickly to see what works, and then allows the organization to expand on that success afterwards. The 100-day deadline drives urgency and keeps the effort top of mind.

The television series 'Star Trek' is all about the potential for humankind’s greatest accomplishments – achieved only by looking ahead and not behind. Achieving the greatest levels of success in any industry will be done not through best practices, but by “going where no man has gone before” and a willingness to take part in experimentation in a complex and unpredictable environment.

For specific examples of healthcare organizations that succeeded through planned experimentation, see our perspective: 'Skip the ‘best practices’: How several hospitals used disciplined experimentation to make complex initiatives successful.'

Jonathan Stearn, Managing Partner at Schaffer Consulting, has helped numerous clients tackle complex business challenges and address the human aspects associated with change initiatives. At the core of every project he delivers is the achievement of bottom-line business results – not analysis, reports, or recommendations – in very short periods of time, typically less than 100 days.


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